PrairieLearn Allows Students to Take Exams And Do Homework Online -- And Have Both Graded Instantly

5/15/2018 4:11:57 PM Mike Koon, College of Engineering

Since 2014, a group of Enginering faculty and staff that includes Computer Science Associate Professor Craig Zilles has been revolutionizing how students take exams and do homework with PrairieLearn, a tool they created for online assessment. This year, through a Strategic Instructional Innovations Program (SIIP) grant, the team is working to grow the number of courses using PrairieLearn, with the goal of increasing its effectiveness and impact.

PrairieLearn allows students to take exams and do homework online, at times convenient to them. Questions are both randomized, so every student is asked something unique, and auto-graded, so every student gets instant feedback. Questions also go far beyond multiple-choice and true-false.
Prairie Learn SIIP project team members (l-r) Craig Zilles (computer science), Tim Bretl (aerospace engineering) and Matthew West (mechanical science and engineering) join Carleen Sacris (front), coordinator of the Computer-Based Testing Facility, at the CBTF lab.
Prairie Learn SIIP project team members (l-r) Craig Zilles (computer science), Tim Bretl (aerospace engineering) and Matthew West (mechanical science and engineering) join Carleen Sacris (front), coordinator of the Computer-Based Testing Facility, at the CBTF lab.

"Questions can involve writing code, drawing schematics, annotating diagrams, moving three-dimensional objects around-the sky is the limit," noted Tim Bretl, associate professor of aerospace engineering and the PI on the SIIP project.  

The auto-grading that PrairieLearn enables has clear benefits to instructors.

"We found with the larger TAM (Theoretical and Applied Mechanics) courses, some of which have more than a thousand students each year, we were drowning in grading," said Matthew West, associate professor of mechanical science and engineering and the creator of PrairieLearn. "We would also get complaints from students, that their friend wrote the same thing as they did, but got one more point. By automating the process, we made it much more efficient and assured that everyone was getting the same experience."

PrairieLearn has huge benefits for students as well.

"Instead of grading, TAs get to spend more time interacting with students," West indicated.  "PrairieLearn frees us up to add projects and other in-depth, creative activities to the course."

"The immediate response that students get-instead of waiting weeks for the results of hand grading-is very important," added Zilles, a member of the SIIP project team.  "This response need not be only whether an answer is right or wrong, it can also come with an explanation of why."

Because questions are randomized, students who need extra practice can get it from PrairieLearn.

"I have had students take a practice exam six times in a row," Zilles said. "They might get a 55 [percent], then a 65, then a 70, then an 80. They do it until they get it right, and then take the exam. It's great for everybody because I want to give good grades, and I want them to learn the material-PrairieLearn helps to make both things happen."

Going hand-in-hand with Prairie Learn is the advent of the Computer Based Testing Facility (CBTF), founded by West and Zilles. The facility, housed in the lower level of Grainger Engineering Library contains 80 computer stations and is open 12 hours per day. Instead of taking exams at times that faculty choose, students can sign up to take exams at the CBTF when it is most convenient for them. Proctors are there to check IDs and administer the exams.

"Instructors want exams taken in a secure environment," West noted. "The CBTF doesn't allow students to talk to each other and prevents access to arbitrary websites. The ability for students to self-schedule and get immediate results is a key benefit."

The growth of both PrairieLearn and the CBTF has been impressive. Between 2014 and 2017, the number of courses using them has grown from 1 to 22, the number of students impacted has grown from 200 to 6000, and the number of exams given has grown from 900 to over 50,000 per semester. 

"Because exams are easier to give, instructors tend to give them more frequently, cutting down on the pressure of each individual exam," West said. "They can more easily give retakes and the whole process is more transparent to the students."

As part of the current SIIP grant, the team is helping instructors get up to speed, working with them to create content, and holding office hours for support.

"We have the infrastructure now to make this work at a large scale," West said. "That took a lot of effort. Now things are really taking off."

Even courses outside the College of Engineering have started to adopt PrairieLearn, and, although the team is currently focused on internal growth, they anticipate sharing this tool with other universities.

"The impact has already been tremendous," Bretl concluded. "We have seen grades go up and have seen classes completely change for the better, with a lot more meaningful interaction between students and instructors. Our goal is to get PrairieLearn into the hands of as many other people as possible. Let's see where it takes us!"